How to distract yourself from anxiety

25 April 2017

When you just need to get through something, distraction can be a powerful tool for taking your thoughts away from your anxiety. However, it is only effective when used correctly. In this episode, we will discuss the differences between effective and ineffective distraction, and look at the different options available.

Listen online

Download episode

To download this episode, right click on this link and select "save target as" or "save link as".


Do you have a need to distract yourself from anxiety? Do you have some thoughts that are plaguing you, that you think, "I just really need to take my mind off them"? Well, today we're going to be looking [00:01:00] at how to use distraction effectively. 

Hey. How you doing. Welcome to the podcast. Today we're looking at how to use distraction [00:01:30] as a coping mechanism for anxiety. We need to star this episode with a bit of disclaimer and talk about why we wouldn't want to use distraction. If you've had cognitive behavioural therapy, you might know why. If my therapist could hear me talking about this, he'd be shouting, "No. No, don't do that." 

The reason that we wouldn't want to use distraction is if we're working on our anxiety, [00:02:00] then it wouldn't be helpful. Because what we want to do when we're doing therapy, is to put ourselves in a situation that causes anxiety, and see that that situation's okay. If we're distracting our mind with something else, then we never learn the lesson, actually. 

It's fine. We're in a situation that feels uncomfortable, but we're okay. In terms of that sense, when you're actively [00:02:30] working on your anxiety, distraction is unhelpful. However, I think we need to accept that we live in the real world. Sometimes anxiety is too much for us to cope with. Or sometimes working on our anxiety isn't the main goal. 

Last episode we were talking about flying, right? Yeah, maybe you want to fly to reduce your anxiety about flying. But actually, maybe you just want to go on holiday and enjoy the holiday. Maybe you just want to go see [00:03:00] your friend or your family member or whatever, and you just don't want to work on your anxiety, you just want to make the whole experience bearable. 

In these situations, I think distraction is a really good coping mechanism to getting us through for the short-term. But we need to use it effectively. Today we're going to talk about what makes effective distraction. 

One of the problem with intrusive [00:03:30] force, is that they're intrusive right? They just keep popping up. We don't ask for them. We don't sit around thinking, "Mmm, I should be worrying about something right now. Let me get out my list and think what I could worry about." 

The thoughts just come into our head without us asking for them, so it's difficult to take our mind, and do something else. The key here is that when our mind is bored, it will go find [00:04:00] those worries. If we really want to be able to distract ourselves, we need to keep our mind occupied. Imagine it's like a small child that you just need to keep busy, so it doesn't know what's going on. It doesn't have time to get bored and throw a paddy. 

The way we need to do that, is we need to put our mind under cognitive load. We need to give it [00:04:30] something that's taking all of our brain power, so there's nothing left over for anxiety. Different things do this to greater or lesser degrees. 

If you've read my book Technical Anxiety, you've seen my hierarchy of things that work and things that don't work. We'll go through that now, so then you've got them all. So for example, films are not a good distraction tool. Why? Because they don't put your mind [00:05:00] under any cognitive load. You can turn a film on, and that film will just keep playing, even if you're paying no attention to it. You can fall asleep in front of the TV, right? The TV just keeps going. 

It's fine. You can totally tune out. You can leave the TV playing, and your mind can wander off and worry, and nothing happens. This is why it doesn't really work as a distraction, because your mind just wanders [00:05:30] back to the anxiety. 

We need to get our mind really involved in the process. The next step up I think is reading. Now, I think this is also quite a poor distraction tool, because for me I really struggled to concentrate on reading when I'm anxious. I'll read a page, and nothing will go in. Then I'll start beating myself up and thinking it's a waste of time, and it's not really that useful. 

[00:06:00] Up from that for me is audio books. So audiobooks are better because I don't have to actually do the reading, but I still have to concentrate on what's happening. I find myself; I can kind of listen to the words being spoken a bit more. Still not great, because it doesn't engage me that thoroughly, but it's better than a physical book for me, because I can take a few words in.

Up from that is conversation. [00:06:30] Just talking to people. That generally requires some level of participation. I'm sure my wife would disagree and suggest that sometimes I'm not a part of the conversation. Which is why it's another perfect distraction method, because you can actually hold up a conversation while thinking about other things. I've got enough experience doing that. 

But if you're really engaged in a conversation, then it does take your mind [00:07:00] off it a bit. Especially if you have a person, realises that you're anxious, and specifically tries to engage you in quite an in-depth discussion to take your mind off it. 

Up from that, housework. I like housework. It's quite good for taking my mind off stuff, because you can really get involved in scrubbing that dirt, or tidying up, or sorting out and alphabetizing my books, or sorting them by size or doing both and comparing those. There's some [00:07:30] mental effort required there. But for me, the gold standard of distraction is games. 

If I know that I have something where I really want to use distraction, I will load my tablet up with a bunch of little video games, especially puzzle games. You can also just do this in a puzzle book. But something that really have to concentrate on like a crossword say, that really you have to put [00:08:00] all your thought into. The more involving it is, the better it works. Because you want to be so absorbed in the game, that you don't have time to worry about anything else. Games do this for me than anything else. 

What happens when say you're playing your little puzzle game, is you're concentrating so hard on the game that there is just nothing left over for your mind to go wandering elsewhere. It's not always perfect, [00:08:30] but it is far more effective than say a film. Next time you're feeling anxious, just compare the two, and you'll really see the results. 

For you, maybe a game isn't the gold standard, maybe it's something else. But the important concept to understand here is that it's all about that cognitive load. It's all about causing your mind to really have to concentrate on something else. It can't be a passive experience that you're just watching. You really have to be involved in it in some way, for it to be [00:09:00] fully effective.


iTunes Google Podcasts Subscribe on Android RSS feed